How ASEAN should respond to questions over its role in Regional Preventive Diplomacy

In his annual press statement at the beginning of 2014, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalagewa declared that Jakarta’s key foreign policy priority for the year would be the maintenance of regional peace and security. Describing it as the most fundamental challenge before us, Foreign Minister Natalegawa noted the irony that as the ten member-states of ASEAN were entering the final stages towards realising the ASEAN Community 2015 (which aimed to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the concert of Southeast Asian nations), the wider East Asian and Asia-Pacific region was witnessing a rise in tensions and insecurity.

An obvious case in point is the ongoing tensions between China and Japan over island claims in the East China Sea. Temperatures had ratcheted in recent weeks and months, especially with Beijing’s sudden announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea airspace, including the disputed islands. The immediate response of Japan and the US to openly challenge China’s ADIZ by flying military planes through the zone did not help matters with Beijing pushed into deploying warplanes to patrol its ADIZ.

Another case in point is Japan’s announcement of a new national security strategy that sees it increasing the country’s defence spending (the first after a decade of cuts). Together with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to revise the country’s post-war pacifist constitution, his questioning of Japan’s war-crimes during WWII, and his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine late last year, there are some who question whether there is a growing nationalist sentiment in Japan that may signal a possible return to Japanese militarism - an issue that remains sensitive for China, South Korea and others in the region.

These cases are indicative of what Foreign Minister Natalegawa described as a “trust deficit” in the wider East Asian region and highlighted a worrying trend for countries to adopt unilateral approaches to solving their disputes with one another. At the same time, it awkwardly placed the spotlight on ASEAN’s preferred multilateral approach and called into question the role of ASEAN’s regional preventive diplomacy.

 

In contrast ASEAN prefers multilateral approaches, subscribing to the liberalist school of international relations that international institutions provide a platform for increasing trust and faith among nation-states. As such ASEAN has introduced a whole raft of regional instruments that forms the regional organization’s preventive diplomacy tools such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation of 1976, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asian Summit. Significantly, these regional instruments include all the regional powers in the East Asian region.

A hallmark of these regional instruments is their ASEAN-led nature with the regional organization insisting that all parties recognize ASEAN’s centrality. This has certain advantages but also opens up some challenges. On a positive note, ASEAN is seen as a neutral and objective party, large enough to have sufficient clout on the regional stage but small enough to not pose a threat to anyone. In this sense, ASEAN is more than qualified to position itself as a “bridge”, bringing together all the disputing parties to the negotiating table. Moreover it has shown itself to have a good record with managing peace and security within the Southeast Asian region, prioritising diplomatic efforts to calm tensions such as the fallout at the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting over the South China Sea issue in 2012, the Thai-Cambodian conflict over the Preah Vihear temple in 2011, and even the Third Indo-China War of 1978-1991.

However, on a negative note, there are question marks over whether ASEAN’s preventive diplomacy tools, which have largely worked well within Southeast Asia, can upscale in size to be as effective with the wider East Asian and Asia-Pacific region. Among others, these questions include: can a grouping of small-to-middle sized countries really influence regional powers (who also happen to be some of ASEAN’s biggest financial contributors) and manage their tensions/disputes? Can a grouping of ten member-states each with their own national interests and concerns viz-a-viz the regional powers in the wider East Asian and Asia-Pacific region really adopt a single united ASEAN stance/position on the different tensions and disputes that exist? Can ASEAN’s preventive diplomacy tools evolve beyond that of confidence building measures (CBM) and preventative diplomacy (PD) to that of conflict resolution?

Dr. Connie Rahakundini Bakrie ended her presentation by answering the questions that had been presented to her in the Terms of Reference for the fifth Talking ASEAN. On the question of, “Can a grouping of small-to-middle sized countries really influence regional powers and manage their tensions/disputes?” she answered, “Yes, if they have one voice.”

On the question of, “Can a grouping of ten member-states each with their own national interests and concerns vis-a-vis the regional powers in the wider East Asian and Asia-Pacific region adopt a single united ASEAN stance/position on the different tensions and disputes that exist?” she answered, “Yes, if we believe we have same threats and enemy.”

Lastly on the question of, “Can ASEAN’s preventive diplomacy tools evolve beyond that of confidence building measures (CBM) and preventative diplomacy (PD) to that of conflict resolution?” she answered “Yes and  No” depending on whether ASEAN had the political will to carry it out or not.

 

Having set out her foreign policy priorities for the year ahead, it is these questions that Indonesia must work together with its fellow member-states in ASEAN in order to achieve the peace, security and prosperity of the region at large as stated in the 2005 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the East Asia Summit.

Written by : A. Ibrahim Almutaqqi, The Habibie Center

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